Wednesday, April 23, 2008

China, the Olympics and the Holocaust

I have received a “Yom haShoah Declaration” for rabbis to sign, protesting the Beijing Olympics because of China’s horrible human rights record. This should be a straightforward decision:

1. Between their actions at home and in the Sudan, the Chinese government’s actions are so revolting that I cannot see anyone going to China for an official event, recognizing them as a member of normal human society.

2. I feel especially moved to sign because, as the petition notes, the Olympics organizers have arranged a kosher kitchen for the Games, presumably to entice Jewish tourists. What a horrible hypocrisy, for a Jew to support these Games while insisting on eating kosher. [Set aside, of course, the whole question of the propriety of Jewish support for these Greek celebrations of the body…]

3. The letter was put together by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, an organization which has accomplished much good on many fronts.

My problem is this: The use of the Holocaust as a basis for protesting Beijing.

The petition specifically notes parallels between these Beijing Games and the 1936 Games in Berlin. The wording includes: “During the 1930s, some major American Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish War Veterans, urged a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Sadly, however, divisions in the Jewish community undermined the effectiveness of the boycott campaign. We dare not repeat the mistakes of that era. We must speak out now, so that Beijing is not able to use the games as a cover for its abuses at home and abroad, as Hitler did. Hitler’s success in improving his public image in the 1930s helped pave the way for the horrors that followed.

First, I have a very hard time with comparisons of anything, at all, to the Holocaust. Six million dead, murdered brutally and humiliated, millions more raped and tortured and displaced and orphaned, and all because of their racial or religious identity… no, nothing should be compared to this. If, Gd-forbid, there would ever be another massacre on that scale, it would have to be its own entity as well. Nothing at that level should be compared to anything else.

Second, the facts in China's case are not the same as those in Nazi Germany. The treatment of the Taiwanese, Tibetans, etc, is not the same as the Nazi treatment of Jews. Protesters in China are not being gassed en masse, raped, spat on and shorn in public displays, having their sacred religious artifacts degraded publicly in the most obscene ways. And while I am horrified at China’s support for the Sudanese government in its atrocities in Darfur, once you learn more about the history of Darfur you see that this situation is not all as one-sided as it has appeared in the rebel-sympathetic press. It's far more like that modern Chechnya than it is like WWII Germany. I reiterate that nothing can justify the Sudanese government’s actions, nothing can justify supporting that government, but they are not nearly in the same league as the Nazis.

So why is the Holocaust being dragged in? Because it’s available. Because Berlin and China are easy to compare. Because it’s a proven way to grab the ear of the world, like screaming “Fire” or “Rape.”

I probably will sign, but with serious reservations. The comparison is wrong. What’s more, it’s unnecessary. Comparison to Berlin 1936 is easy – but we, as Jews, ought to be able to condemn human rights violations on the basis of our Torah and our ethical tradition, without resorting to the Holocaust.

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